By Faiqa Mansab
The invitation had been for five o’clock. But no one showed up till seven. What good was keeping time, when it kept repeating itself anyway? A decade ago, an exhibition of nude paintings wouldn’t have been nearly as crowded as Saqib’s was that day. He should consider himself lucky.
The thought was fleeting. He didn’t.
Open windows offered Saqib a clear view of the rooms belonging to the more sought after tawaifs of Heera Mandi. Several of the young girls, their long hair adorned with flowers, stood watching the estimable Lahoris in his studio, with as much fascination as was being accorded to them. The younger prostitutes had made an effort with their appearance, indicating that they entertained the wealthier, more fastidious clients. The beat of the tabla, and the sitar strain she remembered, had been replaced with upbeat Bollywood songs.
Saqib marveled at the alertness of old Iqbal, who sat like a sultan on the stone platform in front of his little dhaba. He yelled occasionally to be heard above the din, and every time he did, his voluminous belly shook with the force of his voice.
Rida, fifteen years old, and one of the youngest in her trade, smiled shyly from her window. She probably thought she was in love with him. And maybe she was. Or maybe she was looking for a father substitute and, like most women, had confused the two.
The staccato bursts of obscenities mingled with raucous laughter, blending and clashing with the soft music emanating from his mother’s old gramophone. A woman’s rich laughter drifted on the air. He didn’t recognize the retired prostitute who’d laughed.
How could a woman with the life she’d led be happy?
But then, laughter isn’t happiness. Not really.
‘The same as everyone else’s, I suppose.’
‘Jani, I’ve bought two already! They’ll look fabulous in the study.’
‘They’ll look fabulous in your drawing room, Niggi. The color scheme is very similar.’
‘Jani, don’t be silly, I can’t have nudes just anywhere in the house. My mother-in-law would have a heart attack.’
‘Then hang them in her room.’
The women tittered and gossiped. Men laughed and bandied with each other. Saqib chatted with those who sought him out, for pictures or to rekindle a vague acquaintance, and then he edged back towards the window.
The food street below was lively as ever. The touristy residents of Gulberg and other posh localities, sporting jeans and discomfiture, were instantly distinguishable from the regular patrons, the overweight, mustachioed men in shalwar kameez. They called the serving boys cheerfully by name, threw friendly insults at them, ensuring that they got their dinner fast. Their loquacious chatter, punctuated with laughter, was littered with inventive obscenities.
The dented, scratched, and rickety metal table before them was too small for the shallow stainless steel platters piled with mutton chops and chicken karahis . It comforted Saqib in a strange way to know that they were still using stainless steel. There was little danger that the small hands that washed them late into the night would break them.
He’d missed the aromas of cumin, mustard seeds and ginger, of sheep fat sizzling on hot coals and the occasional whiff of the garbage that somehow elbowed its way into the melee of smells. Feeling cathartic satisfaction at finding home almost exactly as he’d left it, he turned away from the window.
And Khayyam walked in with a group of her students.
She was attracted to celebrity. And he was a painter of acclaim. She’d come, as he’d known she would. His eyes were still on her when she found his, and gave him one of those warm smiles he hadn’t forgotten in ten years. She smiled as if his self-imposed exile had been nothing more than an extended holiday for kicks. And just like that, the unsettling doubts only she could trigger began to gnaw at Saqib.